Startup Managers Focus Precious Time on What’s Important
As soon as they arrive, experienced startup builders jump in, wasting no time finding where to immediately focus. They know what to focus on.
They constantly work on focusing – on finding what’s important and what isn’t. I found they manage highly disciplined calendars, yet maintained flexibility and were swift to respond to encounters that popped up – good and bad.
Focus the Business
Over decades I could see that startup veterans consistently begin focusing the business – first-timers struggled greatly with that when the company was in chaos. Veterans had learned that great startups succeed focusing on doing one thing best – so customers rave about what they offer. I’ve observed many managerial teams of troubled founders turn troubled chaos into manageable high growth because of their focus, focus, focus. In other cases, I could see that the abundance of startups who faded away had been lured into trying too much with too little, spreading their tiny startup resources too thin.
Focus on Customers
I also found execution managers were obsessed with focusing on customers. Every thought and effort are measured by its impact on users of their product offerings and services. They were truly obsessed, letting nothing distract them.
Focus Priorities and Decisions
Focus is also about setting priorities. Startup builders constantly re-prioritize their to-dos. If you struggle with deciding what to do next, how to not waste your time, or that of others, I suggest using the well-known quadrant of Stephen Covey, as described in his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Focus Your Calendar Rhythm
I’ve found startup builders immediately get control of their calendar – they drive it, instead of letting it driving them crazy. They lock in days for re-occurring meetings each month: Financial Results, All Hands Gathering, Board Meeting, and so on.
Then they book regular weekly meetings: Executive Group, Staff Meeting, One-on-Ones, etc.
This builds cadence into the life of the new enterprise, giving it a rhythm that helps people dance to the same tune. It’s predictable – it helps people focus on what to do when.
Focus Your Own Weeks
Startup veterans focus their own weeks. They begin by blocking time each day to do solo work – they make meetings with themselves, and do not interrupt them.
And some focus each day on a single subject. Here is what Jack Dorsey has done:
“The way I found that works for me [running two companies at the same time] is I theme my days. On Monday, at both companies, I focus on management and running the company…Tuesday is focused on product. Wednesday is focused on marketing and communications and growth. Thursday is focused on developers and partnerships. Friday is focused on the company and the culture and recruiting. Saturday I take off, I hike. Sunday is reflection, feedback, strategy, and getting ready for the week.”[i]
Note carefully the “Saturday I take off.” That’s part of focusing on what’s important. Ceasing, sabbath, time away, rest, recovery, relaxation, refreshment, “re” good things for your soul and mind and body. I found it works great for me, and has for many I’ve worked with.
Then the veterans focus their meetings, selecting only those important. With the monthly and solo meetings in the calendar taking up space, the inevitable one-time group meetings must be fitted into the remaining space. Those will find less time slots available than needed, thus triggering a decision to select only which are important or not to attend, or lead.
What does not fit the calendar are done via “walk-bys”, “passing in the hallways”, and “desk stops” – also known as “managing while walking around.” Very short communications, of only what’s important. That’s life in a fast-changing startup.
Focus Your Day
Noteworthy is a daily discipline I watched work well with startup veterans. They ended each day by choosing the most important task to complete the next day. Starting with a too-long-to-do list, they sorted it (perhaps into Covey’s Quadrant), picked from the most important tasks, and labeled them as “As”. Then they picked one: it become their “A1” for the next day: that’s the one task you will complete no matter what interferes. It’s a focus tool that made them startup managers very effective.
And take a look at your one-on-one meetings: How can you focus them to be on what’s important and makes both of you more effective? I’ve noted this is where first-timers waste a lot of time, even do harm. Veterans know what to do. For first-timers, there are lots of tips from the vast number of Internet bloggers reciting the same thing. Startup veterans like Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz echoes what I’ve found works well – give a read to his blog on “One-on-One that is also a chapter in his fine book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” Ben concludes,
“In the end, the most important thing is that the best ideas, the biggest problems, and the most immense employee life issues make their way to the people who can deal with them. One-on-ones are a time-tested way to do that, but if you have a better one, go ahead with your bad self.”
That’s how startup builders who are executing a business plan focus their precious time on what’s important. It’s a powerful element to use in building your unfair competitive advantage.
I recall well the positive “vibes” I felt during a visit to a prospering startup. As I went through a day with them, I could see and even feel their working rhythm. The meeting calendar was in place, people arrived on time and worked constructively together. After a few days with them, I could sense a cadence that kept the growing number of employees on the same path, striving toward the fulfilling the startup’s vision. They were confident of weathering inevitable encounters that would come.
I found company rhythm described crisply by Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal in his report “In Menacing Seas, the Navy Relies on ‘Battle Rhythm’”[ii]. He observed:
The ultimate goal, of course, is to help the crew prevail in a crisis. When a team does the same things at the same times at the same pace for months, the thinking goes, habits form. Muscle memory begins to crowd out the mind space that might otherwise be flooded with panic and hesitation.
In other words, a crew in sync wins at war because it makes good decisions quickly and unconsciously with minimal oversight.
That’s pretty good advice to startup founders and the builders that join them. With rhythm, they can face and overcome those inevitable surprise encounters.
[i] Forbes Techonomy 2011 interview with Jack Dorsey.
[ii] Sam Walker, “The Captain Class: In Menacing Seas, the Navy Relies on Rhythm’”, Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2019.
I wish you The Best on your Adventure!